Buick’s new three-row luxury crossover, the Enclave, has a big hole to fill in the brand’s lineup. It replaces not one, but three models: the Rendezvous and Rainier SUVs and the Terraza minivan. A big job indeed, but the Enclave pulls it off by blending SUV styling with much of the driving experience, roominess and fuel economy of a minivan.
With those three discontinued models no longer generating sales for Buick, the Enclave needs to deliver, and it does, thanks in large part to its composed ride, classy interior, and smooth, fuel-efficient powertrain.
Like its sister crossovers — the GMC Acadia and the Saturn Outlook — the Enclave has a refined, carlike ride that isn’t upset by rough roads the way traditional body-on-frame SUVs can be. The Buick’s four-wheel-independent suspension deals with bumps rather well, but there is some bounciness when traveling on rolling, up-and-down roads, especially with all seven seats filled. (An eight-seat version is also available.) A smooth highway ride adds to its appeal.
The Enclave steers with a light touch, thanks to a generous amount of power assist. The steering wheel spins on its axis with Lexus-like smoothness, and the Enclave changes direction with a fair amount of eagerness considering its size. The standard wood-and-leather steering wheel fits nicely in your hands.
All versions of the Enclave are powered by a 3.6-liter V-6 engine that drives a six-speed automatic transmission with a clutchless-manual mode that gives the driver control over shifting. Front-wheel-drive Enclaves get an EPA-estimated 16/24 mpg (city/highway), while all-wheel-drive versions achieve 16/22 mpg using the government’s more stringent fuel economy tests that go into effect with 2008-model-year vehicles.
While it won’t be mistaken for the kind of V-8 engine that has historically powered large SUVs, the Enclave’s V-6 provides good power (275 horsepower) for city driving and acceptable power for high-speed passing and merging. The smooth-shifting automatic transmission is probably more active than it needs to be, as it has a tendency to upshift into a higher gear than necessary. While this is a boon for gas mileage, the transmission has to downshift when you want to accelerate.
The Enclave’s brakes give the driver confidence when bringing the crossover to a halt. There’s no dead zone in the pedal’s travel, and when the brakes engage the pedal has a firm feel to it that makes it easy to apply a little bit more or less force to make a smooth stop. Nicely done.
Of the Acadia, Enclave and Outlook, the Buick has the greatest luxury aspirations, so it’s no surprise that it has the nicest interior, with surprisingly convincing simulated wood and aluminum trim on the dashboard, door panels and center console. There are upscale soft-touch surfaces, and switches and buttons for things like the vents and navigation system depress and move with a nice action. There’s a decorative analog clock on the dashboard and the cabin is quiet.
For the most part, the interior holds its own against, for example, a Lexus RX 350 in terms of material quality, and it beats it in the style department. There are a few minor drawbacks, though, including a few rough edges on the steering-wheel spokes and front door pockets. Additionally, the buttons for the automatic air conditioning system are small and positioned too low on the dashboard to easily adjust while driving, and the latch for the optional moonroof’s manual sunshade is a flimsy plastic catch.
The standard configuration for the second row is two captain’s chairs, but a bench seat with room for three is available. While the captain’s chairs can slide forward and backward and also recline, their primary trick — and one that separates them from many competitors — is that they can collapse vertically against the front seats to make it easier to climb into and out of the third row. GM calls this nifty bit of engineering SmartSlide. These seats have comfortable cushioning, but the seat bottom is close to the floor, which makes for a less comfortable, knees-up seating position for tall passengers.
The three-place third-row bench seat is tight for adults, and the limited legroom is contingent upon second-row passengers not sliding their seats all the way back. There should be decent room for kids here, but they might not like the backrest, which isn’t reclined that much.
The Enclave received five stars in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s frontal crash test — the highest possible score and one that suggests a 10 percent or less chance of serious injury in this type of crash. Standard safety features include all-disc antilock brakes, an electronic stability system, side-impact airbags for the front seats and three-row side curtain airbags.
GM’s trio of three-row crossovers excels at carrying cargo, especially behind the third row, where many competitors fall short. The Enclave has 18.9 cubic feet of room behind the third row, which is more than the Mazda CX-9 (17.2 cubic feet) and Hyundai Veracruz (13.4 cubic feet) offer. In fairness, the Enclave is also a larger car.
With the Enclave’s 60/40-split third row folded flat, there’s 66 cubic feet of luggage space, which is more than a Chevrolet Tahoe’s 60.3 cubic feet. Achieving the maximum capacity of 115.1 cubic feet requires also folding the second-row backrests down.
When properly equipped, the Enclave can tow a maximum of 4,500 pounds. This is better than both the CX-9’s and Veracruz’s 3,500-pound maximum, but falls well short of what a body-on-frame SUV like the Tahoe can pull (8,200 pounds).
Standard features include 18-inch aluminum wheels, Xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights, keyless entry, and a CD stereo with XM Satellite Radio. A power liftgate is also standard, and unlike other ones it won’t fight you if you want to open or close it by hand. Optional features include a six-CD Bose sound system, rear-seat DVD entertainment system, rear parking sensors, a navigation system with a rearview camera, remote start, a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, and power-folding side mirrors.
The Enclave arrives at the right time, with its focus on getting relatively good fuel economy without sacrificing the interior space that makes full-size SUVs appealing. The only problem? There are a slew of other new three-row crossovers — like the CX-9 and Veracruz — that the Enclave must contend with, in addition to quality luxury competitors like Acura’s MDX.
What this means is that it’s not going to be easy for the Enclave to win over shoppers, but it is well-positioned to try. The key will be convincing younger consumers to stop by a Buick dealership for a test drive — which may actually be the greatest challenge.